Film Reviews


By • Aug 8th, 2001 •

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Rated-R / 99 minutes / Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures

In our overly ironic age, it’s refreshing to see a movie that not only isn’t ashamed of its melodramatic elements, but actually revels in them. Melodrama is easy-too easy-to spoof, to scorn, to relegate to the soaps, but you have to admit that it’s also a very effective means of propelling a plot, as well as establishing who to root for and who to hiss.

THE DEEP END is a lot more than simply a melodrama, of course, but it uses the contrivances of melodrama (death, blackmail, outrageous coincidence and that old favorite, a damsel in distress) to let some deeper issues bubble up from below the surface. It’s also a showcase for one of my new favorite actresses, Tilda Swinton, to show what she can do, and that turns out to be plenty.

Swinton’s character, Margaret Hall, is one of those capable women that everyone depends on and no one really knows. In this case she’s a Navy wife with three children and a father-in-law, living in a nice house on the California (non-gambling) side of beautiful Lake Tahoe. Of course, all is not well below the placid surface (sorry, I’ll turn off the water metaphors soon). Oldest son Beau (Jonathan Tucker), still in high school, has gotten involved with sleazy-but-sexy Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), owner of a gay nightclub called, you guessed it, The Deep End. Writer/directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel cleverly play down the obvious, every-mom’s-nightmare aspect (“My beautiful son is gay!”) by overwhelming it with the story’s melodrama: not only is he gay, but his lover is an extortionist with a villainous pencil-thin mustache.

After Margaret visits Reese’s nightclub to warn him away from her son (he says he will, for $5,000), Reese shows up at the house that night for what he hopes will be a booty call with Beau, which rather rapidly turns ugly and violent. Margaret hears the noise but doesn’t see Reese-or rather, what’s left of him-until the next morning. His mid-section has come into unfortunate contact with the sharp end of an anchor. Margaret does what any loving, protective mother would do: she dumps the body in a secluded cove and says nothing to anyone, including her potentially homicidal son.

Described this way, the plot (and there’s a lot more of it, including Goran Visnjic as a moodily handsome blackmailer) sounds not only melodramatic but farcical, but on screen it plays beautifully, mainly due to tight direction and Swinton’s performance. Her dogged concentration, controlled voice and minimalist gestures show us the toll these unfortunate events are taking on Margaret.

What’s most remarkable about Swinton’s acting feat is how much she shows us while hiding from everyone around her. There’s truly no one she can confide in, and the direction emphasizes her character’s solitude from the very first shot, where she’s almost invisible in the blazing sunlight outside Reese’s literally shady nightclub.

Her husband is conveniently at sea and unreachable, but you get the feeling he wouldn’t be much help even if he were home. There’s a small, telling scene between Swinton and her Navy veteran father-in-law, played with the right touch of comic self-importance by Peter Donat. Swinton tries to ask him for money, but she can’t break through her own protective shell of super-competence to admit she needs tens of thousands of dollars-not the $80 he generously offers.

In fact, the only real connections Margaret makes are with Visnjic’s increasingly sympathetic blackmailer and eventually-almost too late-with her son. When the plot’s twists and turns finally bring Swinton and Visnjic into close physical proximity, I felt like shouting “go ahead and kiss him!” to the screen.

With her son, the melodrama of the plot turns into a metaphor for coming out of the closet. This is a time in both a parent’s and a child’s life when life does feel like a melodrama. Margaret’s inability to confront her son over Darby’s death is just an extension of her inability to talk to him about his homosexuality, and her own complicity in the cover-up externalizes her own guilt.

McGehee and Siegel have created an intricately designed trap for Swinton’s character, and she provides them with a miracle of a performance. She creates a credible character-even when the character is doing rather incredible things. One of the most interesting things the actress and filmmakers do is make Margaret increasingly sexy and attractive as her problems get worse. When she dresses up for a trip to Reno, across the lake in big, bad Nevada, the red suit she wears is like a wake-up call after the deep, dark blues and greens of the lake, sky and trees.

If there’s a problem with THE DEEP END, it’s that no one else on screen is as deeply imagined, or as convincingly acted, as Swinton’s Margaret. But as with many another melodrama, a star performance and a plot twist or three may be just enough.

Written, Produced and Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

Based on “The Blank Wall” by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Tilda Swinton,
Goran Visnjic,
Jonathan Tucker,
Raymond Barry,
Josh Lucas,
Peter Donat

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